Aqua Notes

For Butterfly and Breaststroke: Use Your Head

Swimming Streamline

At The Race Club we have always preached to our campers to try to swim smarter. Not that there is any way to swim fast easily, but one can also improve time tremendously by focusing on the minute details of technique, by thinking about the right way to swim, rather than simply doing what might feel correct. When it comes to breaststroke and butterfly, in addition to using your brain for developing the fastest way to kick and pull, one can also benefit from the head in another way.

The adult human head weighs about 12 pounds and over all has negative buoyancy (the brain has neutral buoyancy but the skull has negative buoyancy).  However, since we lift our head completely out of the water on the front-breathing fly and the breaststroke, the weight goes from 12 pounds on the breath to perhaps a pound when it is immersed in the water. How one chooses to use this weight can make a difference in our swimming speed.

Chin To Chest

Most of the breaststrokers and flyers tend to lay their heads down softly after the breath like they are trying to protect them…a natural instinct. Not only that, they do not allow the head to go down far enough, which is when the chin is at or very near the chest. As a consequence, the head stays in a position of greater frontal drag for a longer time during the stroke cycle.

On the racing dive, when the fingers first touch the water and the body’s speed is around 14 mph, nearly 3 times faster than the men’s 50 meter freestyle world record speed, nearly all swimmers have their chins tucked down to their chests. Frontal drag increases exponentially with speed so getting the head into that position with the streamline seems to reduce the drag as much as possible at that crucial moment. When the head comes down after the breath for the breaststroke or the butterfly, the physics don’t change, even though the body speed is less than with the dive. Getting the chin close to the chest is still the best position to reduce frontal drag.


Some of the fastest breaststrokers and butterflyers don’t just lay their heads down into the water softly after the breath, they snap them down quickly and aggressively into the streamlined position (Peaty, King, Cordes). By doing so, they get the head into this desirable position sooner and keep it there longer than by going the slow, gentle route. Further, the higher kinetic energy of the head moving down, when timed with the propulsion from the kick, will add to this force, resulting in more power from the kick. These combined movements result in the body moving further down the pool along the axis of motion with each stroke.

After the breath in fly or breast, don’t just lay your head down gently, snap it down to a better streamlined position and use this important coupling motion to help get you to the wall first.

Yours in Swimming,

Gary Sr.streamlined swimming

Dryland Training at Indiana University

Remembering Marge

Recently I paid a visit to my alma mater, Indiana University, to celebrate the life of the Grand Dame of swimming, Marge Counsilman. The passing of Marge put a finality to the team of Doc and Marge, who collectively changed our sport of swimming for the better. A large group of an older generation of swimmers that had benefited from Doc and Marge’s influence throughout his career assembled to pay the Counsilman family final respects and appreciation. It was a memorable weekend, indeed.

A Warm Invite

While there, at the invitation of Head Coach, Ray Looze and his assistant, Mike Westphal, I took the opportunity to observe the IU swim team training at the Counsilman/Billingsley Aquatic Center. I was particularly anxious to observe the newly appointed Head Sprint Coach, Coley Stickles, and his assistant, Mark Hill, in action. Coley is known as a creative, think-outside-the-box coach and Mark has learned from one of the best coaches in the world, Mike Bottom. They both could bring a lot to the table, and I was curious to see how their different approach would mix with the more traditional aerobic training of Coach Looze. I was not disappointed.

Dryland Training at Indiana University

The sprinters and middle distance swimmers spent the first hour and a half of practice dedicated to a series of dryland exercises that Coley and Mark ran inside the natatorium. The entire session took place in the bleachers and the narrow concrete walkway at the top, not in some fancy modern exercise room nor fitness center. The total financial investment in all of the equipment used for this extraordinary session could be measured in hundreds of dollars, not thousands. Chin up bars, climbing ropes, med balls and a few other inexpensive devices completed the list.

What was most impressive to me about the session was not the relentless series of exercises, nor how much was accomplished with so little equipment, but more about how the exercises were done. Coley had designed the session around a strategic combination of strength, agility and quick movements, often with swimmers paired for both physical and moral support. There were never any exercises that sought a maximum number of repetitions at a given station, but rather one single well-executed exercise followed by a different one, followed by some quick motions requiring skills in coordination and strength, then on to another one.  Between sets, rest intervals were short. This varied assortment of exercises was particularly focused on working the arms, upper body and core, but in such a way that one group of muscles was never overly taxed or fatigued during any given exercise.

While extremely challenging, this dry land session was anything but boring or traditional. From the expression on the faces of the swimmers that somehow seemed to be enjoying this arduous and complex workout, one could hardly consider it to be torture. The swimmers bought in and could sense the benefits that these unusual sessions could bring.

A New Legacy

Near the end, Coach Looze asked me to say a few words to the entire team. I spoke briefly of the rich swimming heritage of Indiana University, thanks to Doc and Marge, but I probably didn’t need to. There were plenty of big photos on the walls to remind them of that. What was more important is that I assured them that Indiana University is well on its way to becoming a powerhouse of swimming again.

Winning the NCAA Swimming Championships is not easy at any level. You must have a diverse team of coaches, trainers and experts, among other staff, who carefully play by the rules. It demands recruiting and landing talented swimmers that mesh together. It relies on having sprinters. Then it requires building the environment and culture of success around those swimmers and getting them ready for the task. Winning is more challenging today than ever before.  

For Indiana University, time will tell if I am right. I believe that this diverse group of coaches of Looze, Stickles, Westphal, and Hill may be the finest assembled in the swimming world today. It has been a long time waiting, but I look forward to the ride.

Go Hoosiers!

Best in swimming,

Gary Sr.

Is Butterfly Swimming a Short-Axis Stroke?

An Unclear Fit

A short-axis stroke is defined as a stroke where there is desirable rotation of the body along the short axis through the middle of the hip, as opposed to the long axis, along the length of the body. Breaststroke is a short-axis stroke because the swimmer should extend the lower lumbar spine (arch the back) and elevate the shoulders as much as possible to augment the force of the kick. Breaststroke does not rotate the body on the short axis, but it does bend the body on the short axis. It can do that because the body’s speed in breaststroke, before the kick, goes to nearly zero.   Freestyle and backstroke are both long-axis strokes as there is clearly body rotation around the axis in the line of motion down the pool with each. What about butterfly? Where does it fit in?

Butterfly is clearly not a long-axis stroke, but it is not really a short axis stroke, either. Because the body speed in fly should never approach zero, a swimmer should neither bend nor rotate much on the short axis. The body needs to stay in a more horizontal position to reduce frontal drag. In order to maximize propulsion from the dolphin kick, however, there has to be some undulation at the hip. So the body cannot remain perfectly horizontal either. 

What is a Short-Axis Stroke?

Unlike breaststroke, where the kinetic energy of the upper body and head moving angularly forward and downward couples with the kick, augmenting its force, the underwater pull and first down kick of butterfly occur as the upper body and head elevate for the breath, not moving downward, so there is no coupling energy there. While the downward motion of the upper body and head in fly and the forward swinging of the recovering arms might couple with the second down kick, over elevating the body will cause too much drag to benefit the over all speed.

In breaststroke, the elevation of the shoulders occurs during the underwater pull and before the next kick. In other words, it is a period of deceleration when the body’s speed is slowing and comes nearly to a halt, once the knees are brought forward under the body for the next kick. Since frontal drag is exponentially related to the velocity, putting the body in this poor shape (for frontal drag) during this slow time has less adverse effect than if the body were traveling fast.

In butterfly swimming, the body never stops moving and there are typically two peak velocity points. The first occurs on the first down kick, when the hands are underwater pulling. If a breath is taken on this stroke, then the additional shoulder elevation can adversely affect this peak velocity. The second peak velocity occurs on the second down kick which should occur simultaneously with the entry of the recovering arms into the water.


In order to get the head above water for the breath and because the preceding up kick requires some extension of the lumbar spine, there will always be some shoulder elevation for the breath and curvature of the body. However, the shoulder elevation can be minimized by allowing the neck to extend forward as much as possible.

Indeed, when watching Michael Phelps take a breath, that is precisely what happens. It is as if he were a giraffe, extending his long neck forward, yet low to the water, to get each breath. By doing so, he minimizes the elevation of the shoulder. With the strong kick, he elevates the entire body to remain flatter and skates over the top of the water. That is the closest we may ever see a human being come to hydroplaning.

In butterfly, use your neck muscles to breathe forward, not upward, develop a strong kick and skate over the top of the water for maximum speed and distance per stroke.

Watch Improve Butterfly Technique Swimisode

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

Keep Your Head Still in Backstroke

Stevie Wonder Head

Many years ago, I was coaching a ten year old swimmer that had a bad habit of turning her head to one side with each right arm recovery in backstroke. None of the drills I was recommending to her seemed to correct the problem. As soon as she started swimming backstroke again, the head would begin moving.

Her mother was standing behind me watching all of this, while sipping her coffee from a styrofoam cup. I turned to her and asked, ‘has she always moved her head like this in backstroke?’

‘All of her swimming life’, she responded.

Finally, somewhat frustrated by her lack of improvement, the mother threw the remaining bit of coffee from her cup onto the grass and handed it to me.

‘Here’, she said ‘fill this up halfway with water and put it on her forehead. See if she can make it to the other side without spilling it.’

Cup Balance Drill for Backstroke

I saw where she was going with this and was excited to see if it could truly be effective. It is amazing what a swimmer can do when a quirky challenge can reset the mind frame for approaching difficult aspects of altering technique or correction.

The little girl took the cup and laid out on her back, carefully placing the cup on her forehead. She then began swimming backstroke very slowly and deliberately all the way to the other end of the pool. She didn’t spill a drop.

Now, a bit more confidently, she turned and swam back with a little more effort, building speed as she progressed. She nearly made it all the way back before the cup fell from her forehead.

After two more 25 yard swims with the cup on her forehead, I asked her to swim without it. Presto, no more head motion. From that time on, if she started to move her head again, I asked her to pull out the styrofoam cup, fill it half full of water, place it on her forehead and do another 25 backstroke. After a few more days, she never moved the head, regardless of her speed.


Since then, I have used the styrofoam cup technique on many occasions and it has never failed. I suggest using only styrofoam rather than paper or plastic, as it stays on better. For best results fill it about 1/3 to 1/2 full. Tall cups are too top heavy, so stick with a shorter cup. Since not every parent is drinking coffee at the time you need it, I always keep a supply of these cups on hand, just in case.

I am sure that there are many others who have used this technique. I never stop learning new insights or old school tricks from parents and coaches, so keep those suggestions coming!

Yours in Swimming,

Gary Sr.

The Power of the Surge

The Surface

At The Race Club, I often ask our campers where is the fastest place one can swim in the water. As you can imagine, most of them say below the surface, but the answer is, of course, above the water, or hydroplaning. Unfortunately, it is estimated that in order to hydroplane, the human body needs to be going around 15 miles an hour, or faster. With world record speed in the 50 at just over 5 miles an hour, I don’t think we will be seeing anyone hydroplaning soon.

So, if we can’t swim on top of the water, where is the next best place to be? Under water is the next best place (our campers aren’t too far off). In fact, swimmers with very strong kicks are able to go faster underwater, with legs only, than they can swim on the surface with arms and legs going at full speed. Part of the reason for this is because the pulling motion contributes to both propulsion and frontal drag. However, the biggest reason is because of surface or wave drag.

Surface drag occurs only when the swimmer is on the surface and is caused by the body moving through the interface between air and water. Just like a boat, swimmers create a small bow wave, mostly from the head, as they move through the water on the surface. Surface drag is as significant for a swimmer as it is for a submarine. Submarines go much faster under water than they go on the surface, and so do humans.

Beyond Starts and Turns

When we speak of underwater movement of the swimmer, most coaches think in terms of starts and turns, and after 15 meters the swimmer is, by the rules, relegated to the surface. Indeed, the underwater speed on both starts and turns is extremely important. What most coaches don’t realize is that each stroke has an underwater phase…or at least it should. Breaststroke is the most obvious one, where in all but the 50, where stroke rates approach 60 or higher, the body submerges completely during the strike phase after the kick propulsion. That is when the breaststroker achieves the greatest speed; when he/she surges forward.

Though it is less noticeable, there is also an under water surge phase in freestyle, fly and backstroke. The under water surge should occur at the peak velocity in the stroke cycle, so the drag coefficient is lowest when the speed is highest. Frontal drag is proportional to the speed squared, not just the speed. In freestyle, the peak velocity occurs when one hand first enters the water.

For hybrid freestylers, like Phelps, Lochte or Ledecky, or hip-driven freestylers, liked Sun Yang, the surge occurs right after the breath stroke, when the head submerges momentarily. In butterfly, the underwater surge occurs after the second down kick, when both hands have entered the water and head is tucked down. For backstroke, one often sees a slight trickle of water come over the face of the swimmer as the hand is nearing entry into the water, the surge point.

The Right Moment

In order to surge, a swimmer has to create propulsive forces to surge with, and, at the right time, the swimmer must be under water. The propulsion comes from two sources substantially, the hands and the feet. One can augment the propulsive forces of the hands and feet by using coupling motions in all four strokes. In freestyle and backstroke, the coupling motions are the rotating body and, depending on the stroke rate, the recovering arm.

In breaststroke, the coupling motions that augment the kicking force are the downward pressing of the upper body and snapping down of the head. The coupling motion that augments the pull is the upward motion of the upper body and head. In butterfly, the coupling motions are primarily the arms swinging forward and the head snapping down, timed with the second down kick. We are just beginning to understand how important these coupling motions are to swimmers to increase power, speed and distance per stroke.

Power of the Surge

I never would have believed that someone could swim a 200 meter butterfly in 1:55 with a stroke rate of 31 (typical stroke rates are 48 or so in the 200). Yet Yajima Yuma from Japan did that in the World University Games recently, maximizing the force of his strong kick with an elevated diving body, strong forward arm swing and head snapping down, all coupling motions, into an underwater surge in a streamlined position. That swim is a testament to the power of coupling.

Do not underestimate the importance of getting the head and most of the body underwater during the surge phases of each stroke. One millimeter under water is enough to eliminate the surface drag. Although in the 50 sprints, because of the high stroke rates, we would be hard pressed to say that there is any significant surge point, in all other races, surging underwater is a key to fast swimming.

Best in swimming,

Gary Sr.

3 Ways to Evaluate a Swimmer for Breaststroke Kick


Note*: This article has been updated as of 10/16/2017.

Mobility and Rotation

Flexibility is a huge part of a swimmer’s ability. In freestyle, backstroke and butterfly, there are two joints that require extraordinary flexibility in order to excel, the shoulders (particularly extension) and plantar flexion of the ankle.

Obviously, the former helps in the pulling motion and recovery, while the latter helps in the kicking speed. Flexibility is extremely important in developing a strong breaststroke kick. 

In breaststroke, the two most important areas of mobility are in the lower (lumbar) spine and the hip, particularly with internal rotation. A flexible lower back enables the swimmer to elevate higher during the pulling motion and create more coupling energy both for the pull and the following breaststroke kick. The internal rotation of the hip enables a swimmer to create more surface area of the instep during the propulsion of the kicking motion, while keeping the knees relatively close together.

The Good Fight

At The Race Club we often say that swimming is a sport of tenths of seconds, millimeters and degrees. What is meant by that is that there is a small margin of error between getting it right or not. There is neither a lot of forgiveness nor mercy in the water. Breaststroke kick is a good example of that.

For every additional degree of internal rotation in the hip, I would estimate that the propulsion from the kick increases by 5 -10 %. In other words, if one were to increase the internal rotation of the hip by 5 degrees, one would achieve 25 to 50% more propulsive force with the same amount of effort, just by increasing the surface area of the instep pushing backward. To me, that seems worth fighting for.

The Hip Test

There are three very simple tests to evaluate your swimmers’ mobility and potential to have a fast breaststroke kick. The first two are the hip tests, one for internal and the other for external rotation. For internal rotation, we recommend testing the swimmer in the W squat position. We do NOT recommend this position be used for stretching nor exercise, as it can place too much strain on the knee in swimmers with poor internal rotation.

The swimmer squats on a padded mat with the knees on the ground as close together as possible. The knees are bent with the feet behind, near the hip, turned outward rather than backward, simulating the exact position a swimmer will be in prior to initiating the propulsion from the breaststroke kick. If a swimmer is able to get his/her bum on the ground comfortably in this position with no pain, then the swimmer has good internal hip rotation.

To test for external hip rotation, have the swimmer sit on a chair or bench and cross the legs with one ankle on top of the thigh of the other leg. Dorsiflex the foot of the bent leg to protect the knee. Then, with arms stretched straight overhead, have the swimmer bend forward at the waist with a straight back, allowing the arms and hands to fall toward the ground. A swimmer with a good external hip rotation will be able to put the palms of their hands all the way to the ground. A swimmer with limited external rotation in the hip will not even come close.

For those with limited hip flexibility, the same stretch can be used daily, holding the position for a minute or longer on each side, in order to improve the external rotation. There are many modifications of this hip stretch and just like in swimming technique, some work better based on the individual. Later, I will describe a good stretch to improve internal rotation, but do not use the W squat for that.

Experimental All-Stars

When I was at Indiana University, I was an IMer with a very poor breaststroke kick (an extinct breed of IMer).My coach, Doc Counsilman, had me walk around for hours with what he called ‘alligator shoes’ on. These were a pair of high top Converse All-Stars nailed to a board angled at 45 degrees to the ground. The hope was to increase my ankle dorsi-flexion by lengthening the gastrocnemius muscle and tendon (calf and Achilles tendon). Unfortunately, that is like stretching a Trans-Atlantic cable….and I never did get much faster. We were just focused on the wrong place. While there are various levels of mobility of the ankle and knee which can naturally help breaststrokers, I am not certain how much we can change them. The hip, which is a ball and socket joint, is a much easier place to increase mobility than stretching the Achilles tendon, gastrocnemius muscle or the knee joint.

Back Flex Test

The other test I use for breaststroke is to evaluate the flexibility of the lower back. First allow a proper warm up to loosen the low back and strengthen the core. Then, hold down the ankles of a prone swimmer and have them arch upwards with the upper body as far as they can, keeping the pelvis on the ground. Olympian Rebecca Soni, can bend her body to nearly a 90 degree angle. Or one can do a back pushup (on a padded mat), which requires considerable spinal flexibility and arm strength. The closer the swimmer can bring their hands toward the feet on the ground, the more flexibility is present in the lower back. There are modifications to begin increasing low back flexibility to slowly work up to these back bending exercises.

A strong breaststroke kick is key to swim the stroke fast. As much as 80% of a swimmer’s propulsion in breaststroke comes from the kick. The power of the kick depends on having a large surface area of the instep accelerating quickly backward, coupled with the energy of the upper body pressing forward and the head snapping downward. To do well, both motions require extraordinary flexibility in the back and hip, plus strong legs and core.

Evaluate a Swimmer for Breaststroke Kick

Do these three simple mobility tests for each of your swimmers. If your swimmers don’t have enough hip mobility, either develop a stretching/dryland program whereby they can develop more, or don’t focus on the IM or breaststroke. Either option is acceptable. Just don’t expect them to swim fast breaststroke without having this type of flexibility.

Yours in swimming,
Gary Sr.


External Hip Rotation Test

Test your external hip rotation flexibility.

*This Article Was Updated 10/16/2017:

I would like to thank Adrien, CrookedDonald and Lizamuch, SwimSwam readers, for correcting my errors on the previous breaststroke evaluation article. While standing (knees extended) the hip externally rotates to point the toes outward, while with the knees bent or flexed, as in the breaststroke kick, the hip moves opposite (internally rotates) in order to point the toes outward. The test we recommend for external rotation of the hip is still a good one to test with, however, as most fast breaststrokers will have increased flexibility for both internal and external rotation. The updated revision suggests a way you can test for both.

– Gary Hall, Sr.

The Best Breathing Pattern in the 100 Freestyle

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic

The human body is equipped with two systems to produce energy for fast swimming, aerobic (requires oxygen) and anaerobic (no oxygen required). Both are used in tandem to produce ATP, the fuel for our muscles, but there are significant differences between the two energy systems that you should consider when choosing a breathing pattern for a specific race.

While the purpose of this article is not to describe these different energy systems in detail and how they work, it is to try to come up with the best possible breathing solution for the 100 freestyle. The reason that the breathing pattern in the 100 freestyle (and butterfly) is more controversial than for other distances is that for events shorter than 100 meters, the energy is predominantly derived from the anaerobic system. In events longer than 100 meters, the energy is predominantly derived from the aerobic system. In the 100 meters, the energy derivation is about half aerobic and half anaerobic. 

Different Strategies

We know that the fastest way to swim freestyle (or fly) for a short distance is without breathing. The motion required to take a breath in free or fly increases frontal drag and can slow the stroke rate, both of which will slow the swimmer’s speed. Therefore, in the 50 sprints, where most of the energy is coming from the anaerobic system, a swimmer should breathe as little as possible. In the 200 events and up, where the energy is mostly from the aerobic system, a swimmer should breathe as close to the physiologically ideal rate as possible. That rate, as determined by what athletes do on land during sustained exercise, when oxygen is available at will, is typically between 40 to 50 breaths per minute. That means a breath should be taken every cycle (two freestyle strokes), in order to keep close to that rate.

What about the 100 freestyle, where the energy is split equally between the two systems, the first 50 being mostly anaerobic and the second 50 mostly aerobic? What is the ideal breathing pattern?

For two primary reasons, we believe the breathing pattern should be (and is) different for elite males and females. Women typically train more aerobically than men for the 100 freestyle (have better aerobic systems). Men typically have larger muscle mass than women, which can produce more lactate, lowering the body’s pH sooner than in women. 

Studying the Elite

Virtually all of the elite male freestylers breathe every cycle in the 100 free (SC or LC), while most elite women will breathe on the first 50 with a 1:3 pattern (one breath per 3 strokes, breathing to both sides), a 1:4 pattern (one breath every 4th stroke to the same side). Simone Manuel breathes 1:4 for one cycle, then 1:2 for the next cycle, which is equivalent to the respiratory rate of the 1:3 pattern. On the second 50, most women will increase their respiratory rate by taking extra breaths. Both male and female swimmers typically hold their breath for the final 5-8 strokes, increasing the stroke rate to the wall. Some elite swimmers, like Caeleb Dressel, do not breathe on the final stroke into each turn, in order to accelerate into the wall. 

When one looks at respiratory rates, Caeleb and Nathan Adrian will swim the 100 meters LC with a rate of about 35-38 breaths per minute, though Caeleb’s stroke rate is about 10 strokes per minute faster than Nathan’s.  Caeleb’s respiratory rate in the 100 yards is 30 breaths per minute, because more time is spent under water with the extra turns. His stroke rate in SC (125) is even faster than in LC (115). The elite women tend to hold around a 30 respiratory rate in long course, yet Cate Campbell, who has a slower stroke rate (around 92) and holds a 1:4 breathing pattern for the entire 100 LC, has a respiratory rate of 23…which is probably not high enough to prevent the pH drop.

The Best Breathing Pattern for You

What we like to teach at the Race Club for swimmers that do not have the aerobic systems of the elite athletes is to swim the first 50 more anaerobically with a 1:4 or 1:3 breathing pattern and the second 50 more aerobically with a 1:2 pattern. When the aerobic system improves with age and training, the respiratory rate can decrease. However, it should not go below 30 breaths per minute for women and in LC, 35 breaths per minute for men. 

The 100 freestyle is not a sprint and requires a steady flow of oxygen intake, more so on the second 50 than the first, in order to maximize the performance. Have your breathing pattern determined and planned before the race, not during it. Otherwise, one will hold the breath too long at the beginning, when there is no feeling that breathing is needed, and will not be able to get enough oxygen at the end, when the pH drops too low.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

10 Ways to Reduce Frontal Drag

Out of Our Element

Frontal drag is the number one enemy of the swimmer. Swimming is arguably the most technique sensitive sport on the planet. With water being some 800 times denser than air, the frontal drag forces that slow swimmers down come into play at much slower speeds than all other sports on land. For that reason, in order to become fast, we must learn how to reduce frontal drag as much as possible.

There are three types of frontal drag; friction, pressure (form) drag and surface (wave) drag. Researchers have shown that all three can contribute significantly to the slowing of a swimmer. In any given medium, including water, the frontal drag forces of an object are determined by its shape, its surface texture (friction) and its speed squared.

10 Good Ways to Reduce Frontal Drag:
  1. Keep the body aligned. A curved body creates more frontal drag than a straight body. While some curve in our body is needed in order to create more propulsion, such as during the hip undulation in the dolphin kick, it is important that we bend, but not break the body. Too much curve or too much angle of one of our appendages sticking out causes an enormous increase in frontal drag. Keeping the body aligned requires having a tight core.
  2. Keep the head down. Keeping the head down helps keep it in alignment with the body, but more importantly, a head down also can help reduce surface or wave drag. There is actually less drag underwater than on the surface of the water (think of a submarine), because we eliminate surface drag. Frontal drag is proportional to our speed squared, so ideally, we would like to see the head submerged during the fastest point in the stroke cycle, which I call the surge point. All four strokes have a surge point where the head should be underwater, even if it is slightly so.
  3. Pull underwater with a high elbow. In the pulling motion of all four strokes, the upper arm is the ‘bad cop’, causing most of the frontal drag. By keeping the elbow nearer to the surface (except it backstroke) and more in alignment with our body’s motion, we can reduce, but not eliminate, the frontal drag caused by the forward motion of the upper arm during the pull.
  4. Wear the fastest technology racing suit possible. The records set in 2008 and 2009 convinced all of us that the suits really matter. Even today, the best suits help reduce friction and keep the body tighter to reduce frontal drag.
  5. Shave all the hair from your body. Although this is generally not done (or recommended) until post puberty, when significantly more hair grows on the body, shaving the entire body will reduce friction and make us slicker and faster.
  6. Streamline off the start and all turns. Getting into the tightest streamline possible creates a huge advantage when you are moving fast. The fastest point you will reach in a swimming race (about 15 mph) is when the fingertips touch the water off the starting block. The second fastest is when your toes leave the wall on each turn (6-8 mph). At either time, because of the exponential relationship between speed and frontal drag, you had better get into the tightest streamline possible.
  7. Keep your kick tight. In freestyle, backstroke and breaststroke, the kick must be tight in order to help reduce frontal drag. With the former two, that means not bending the knees too much and in breaststroke it means keeping the knees at or inside the hips and elevating the feet and legs at the end of the kick.
  8. Double cap. Covering up that thick head of hair and creating a new surface for your head with the reduced friction of silicone is another good way to reduce drag. Most athletes today will double cap, leaving the goggle straps between the first and second caps. The outer cap should be a thicker silicone material to maintain its smoothness.
  9. Wear low profile goggles. Racing goggles should be strapped on tighter to the face and are a little smaller and sleeker than larger training goggles. The less they protrude from your face, the better.
  10. Point your toes. One of them most common mistakes made on the start is not pointing the toes at entry. Our Race Club study of passive drag showed that a relaxed (hanging) foot causes a 33% increase in frontal drag as compared to pointed toes. In general, the less splash one makes on the dive entry, the less frontal drag. The other common strokes where the relaxed foot causes more frontal drag is at the end of the breaststroke kick and the down kick in dolphin. In either case, keep the toes pointed backward to reduce drag. 
Slip Through Water

If you successfully comply with all of the above, you will graduate from being a swimmer, one who slogs through the water, to become a much faster ‘swipper’, a swimmer that slips through the water. Let’s hope you become a ‘swipper’! (Click here to find out what a swipper is)

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

Setting Goals: Short, Medium, and Long Term

3 Sets of Goals

We begin every camp at The Race Club by helping each swimmer in setting goals: a short term, medium term and a long term goal. The short term goal is what we want to accomplish while at the camp. Every swimmer has a greater need to improve on some facets of his/her race or on a certain stroke or strokes more than others. The swimmer and/or parents always seem to have a clear idea of what the weaknesses are.

Once the swimmer leaves the camp, or for those that do not attend, the short term goal should be what will be accomplished today. The focus of training is different nearly every single day. One day, the focus may be on butterfly or kicking or IM, while on another day the focus may be on strength/power training, turns, recovery or any number of other important techniques. The goal of that day should be to improve in a specific technique that was learned at our camp for whatever aspect of training is being emphasized. By doing so, the swimmer will reinforce the improvements gained from attending our Race Club camp. The swimmer will begin to shore up their biggest weaknesses.

Setting Specifics

The second or medium term goal is what we want to accomplish this season. As part of our discussion on mental training at our camps, we have every swimmer define specific goal times for the end of the season and write them down. We also ask the swimmer to know exactly when and where those goal times will be reached. One by one, we go over those goal times with each swimmer, offering suggestions if we do not feel they are appropriate. Then we ask the swimmer to take the approved goal times home and transpose them onto a large poster board that can be hung in their bedroom. We want the swimmer to see those goal times every single day of the season.

Specifically defined goal setting is an extremely important part of mental training and one that should be taken very seriously. It is surprising how many swimmers are not setting goals each season. It is remarkable how often our Race Club swimmers that do will achieve their goal times each season. If the goals are not written and visible to the swimmer each day, I doubt they would be as successful.

Valuable Experience

We like to think of each season as a chapter in the swimmer’s life; a book that is being written about the swimmer in real time. Once the season is over, regardless of the outcome, we close the chapter and start a new one. Some chapters seem better than others, yet from our perspective, every chapter is valuable, as each provides vital experience and education, some of which is tough. There are no bad chapters.

The swimmer’s long term goal may be the most important. Swimming is a challenging sport. Incredible amounts of work and dedication are required by both swimmers and parents in order to excel. For a swimmer to continue on this long journey, chapter after chapter, year in and year out, there needs to be a vision of where the journey is leading to. There needs to be something personally significant in setting goals for the swimmer.

For an old swimmer like me, a hot shower after practice and the release of a few endorphins may be enough to keep me coming back, but not so much for a young swimmer. The workload and expectations can sometimes be too great. There has to be more to it than socializing with team members, the occasional great practice or even achieving the goal times at the season’s end. There has to be a bigger reward.

Dream Big When Setting Goals

At The Race Club, we encourage every swimmer to dream big when setting goals. Whether the long term goal or dream is realistic or not does not matter. While every Olympian began with a dream to be there some day, not every swimmer that dreams of being an Olympian arrives there. This really doesn’t matter. It is the dream that kept him or her going through the most difficult chapters. The dream pushes the swimmer higher up the ladder of success. It could be making it to the Junior Nationals, Olympic Trials or getting a college scholarship or even achieving a personal best time. So long as there is a vision; a dream of where the path is leading to, the journey becomes doable.

The short term goal should be considered every day. The middle term goal should be established at the beginning of each season or chapter, with a friendly reminder on the bedroom wall each day. The long term goal should be considered every so often and tucked into the subconscious of the mind. It is kept there in a safe place and brought out whenever motivation is needed.

If you want to become a better swimmer today, this season and over your career, begin setting these three sets of goals. We guarantee that they will help you.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.

Develop a Turbocharged Engine for Your Freestyle

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Turbocharged When You Need It

My wife drives an Audi Q5 that has a 4-cylinder engine with a turbocharged engine. I like the car because if I drive it conservatively, it gets really good gas mileage. Yet, if I need to pass someone quickly on the freeway, by pressing the accelerator hard, the car shifts into a much more powerful mode and picks up speed right away. Of course, it uses a lot more gasoline when I do that, but it is nice to know that I have that option when I need it.

Race Strategies

One can look at the freestyle kick as being similar to the turbocharged engine. In the 50 meter sprint, every swimmer needs to push the accelerator all the way to the floor, maximizing the power of the kick all of the way. But in any event longer than 50 meters, one has to back off the accelerator some in order to keep from running out of gas.

The longer the swim, the more careful one needs to be about pushing the legs into turbocharged mode. In the mile, for example, that mode is often reserved for the finish of the race. It is the turbocharged mode of the kick that enables Sun Yang to swim the last 50 meters in under 26 seconds, or Chris Swanson from U of Penn to swim the last 50 yards in 24.3 seconds and demolish the field. In fact, whenever there is a close race at the finish, I will always bet on the swimmer who has the turbocharged engine available in his/her legs.

6 Beat Kick

The question is, ‘how does one develop a freestyle with the turbocharged option’? I have focused many of my articles and blogs on the importance of developing a strong kick, but the truth is, it is not easy to do. It requires developing extraordinary plantar flexibility of the ankle, leg strength for both the down and up kick motions, working both sides of the leg, and leg fitness; lots of it.

When you consider your pulling stroke rate, which may vary between 60 and 100 strokes per minute for any distance over 50 meters, with a 6 beat kick, the kicking stroke rate is 6 times that, or 360-600 kicks per minute. That means that during each stroke cycle, hand entry to hand entry, each leg takes 3 down kicks and 3 up kicks. Now consider that your 6 beat kick never really has any recovery time, as the legs are either pushing down or pulling upward at all times. That is a lot of sustained effort. It is no wonder that we cannot keep our legs in turbocharged mode for more than 50 meters without reaching exhaustion. If we are to use our legs in turbocharged mode for any part of the race, however, they simply must be extraordinarily fit; even more so than than our arms are.

The Right Moment

Once you develop the turbocharged capacity in your freestyle kick by gaining ankle flexibility, leg strength and fitness, you must also learn how far down to push the accelerator for each race, and when to push the pedal all the way to the metal. The muscles of the leg are big and strong and if you use the turbocharged mode too early or too long, the lactate produced by this mode will ultimately shut you down.

Build a better swimming engine; one with a turbocharge capacity. Do so by working your legs incessantly, in and out of the water, developing the right tools for kicking propulsion. Then plan your longer races carefully, using the 4 cylinders at the beginning, getting good gas mileage, and saving the turbocharge option for the right time at the end. Then you can finish the race blowing by everyone, just like Sun Yang or Chris Swanson. It is a great feeling.

Yours in swimming,

Gary Sr.